Original WWII U.S. Coast Guard Bronze Line Throwing Cannon Lyle Gun with Steel Mount

Item Description

Original Item: Only One Available. This is a distinctive Waffle-barrel Lyle gun made by the Naval Co of Philadelphia. It is constructed of bronze with a steel lined bore manufactured by the and dated around the muzzle 2 - 15 - 45. The tube is maker marked and a "flower" proof the has U S C G in the leaves. The tube measures 23 inches, the bore length is 21 inches and the bore diameter is 1.75 inches. The steel base is 27 inches x 11.5 inches. Overall weight including the steel base is 160lbs.

Before what we know today as the U.S. Coast Guard was established, in 1848 the government thought it was a good idea to build and staff rescue stations along parts of the coastline that were prone to shipwrecks. By 1915, over 270 of these stations were built on every coast and were run by the United States Life-Saving Service. Stations in many cases were ran like local volunteer fire departments with one or two full time government employees stationed there to take care of the equipment and ring the bell if a ship came to close for comfort.

When the bell rang, a crew would assemble and try to launch their small rowboat through the surf and make for the grounded or broken ship. The thing is, as many of these areas were too hazardous to begin with, or during a storm (hey, think about it, when do ships wreck anyway?), all that the intrepid lifesavers could do was sit by and watch.

So in 1875, Sumner Kimball, superintendent of the USLSS reached out to the Army to build them a special cannon.

When he graduated from West Point in 1869, David A. Lyle accepted his commission in the U.S. Ordnance Department and departed for San Francisco to assume his duties at Benicia Arsenal in the San Francisco area-- the main ordnance depot west of the Mississippi at the time. In 1875, thinking the recently promoted 1st Lieutenant had too much spare time on his hands; the Army assigned him the ancillary task of designing the requested cannon for the surfmen.

Over a three year period, which ended with Lyle's transfer to the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts-- the Army's primary arms development house for nearly two centuries, the young Lt. Lyle came up with at least three different prototypes of small portable cannon that could be used by the Life Saving Service to rescue survivors from coastal shipwrecks that were unsafe to reach by small boat.

The small bronze cannon of the final design was about 28-inches long and weighed some 150-pounds when bolted to its wooden mount. It was some 2.5-inches in caliber (a pinch over 63mm for you metric fans) and was smoothbore.

Its ammunition, instead of a cannon ball, grapeshot or shell was a 16-inch long bronze torpedo-shaped projectile that, when loaded, left an iron bolt-eye extending past the muzzle crown. Threaded through that 20-pound hunk of metal was a light braided line that was several hundred yards long and staked out to a beach cart that included a box for replacement charges, a flaking box to play out the line when fired, a breeches buoy (a life ring with a pair of canvas pants sewn in the bottom) and the block and tackle system.

Loaded with between one and eight ounces of cannon grade black powder ignited through a friction primer, the charge could be adjusted to fire between 50 and 800 yards. As the gun had no recoil system or wheels, it would often be kicked by several feet when fired with a full load.

Once the line was fired over the ship, the crew of the stricken vessel would haul aboard a stouter hemp rope and begin the process of transferring mariners and passengers ashore one at a time.

The line would generally be secured on the ship's mast or top of the wheelhouse to allow gravity to help speed rescues ashore.

While Springfield Armory made the first few guns, and the next 200 were produced at West Point, later production of these pieces was contracted out to both large and small foundries with enough guns being made to equip each station.

These included Watervliet Arsenal, Driggs Ordnance Co., N. Y. Savres, Naval Co of Philadelphia, Colston, C. D. Durkee & Co. of New York, C. C. Galbraith & Son, and others, with more than 30 companies making these guns both for the USLSS and for shipping companies who wanted their own.

By 1906, it was estimated that these lifesaving cannon had been instrumental in hundreds of wrecks saving in excess of 4,000 lives.

When the USLSS was merged into the newly established U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, the organization's Lyle guns and personnel went along with the agency. Even though motor powered small boats increasingly began to equip rescue stations, the line throwing cannons were still in heavy use. In fact, since the process of rigging, loading and firing a Lyle gun was a bit complex, to make sure everything went right, the guns were tested at hundreds of stations nationwide on a weekly basis.

After 1930, the USCG modernized its stock of these cannon, ridding themselves of the more ancient guns and fitting the best of the lot with a firing mechanism that was charged with a .32 or .38 caliber black powder cartridge blank.

Firing one of these popguns as many as 400 times per year inevitably lead to wear and tear and the Coast Guard had to continue to issue small contracts to replace shot-out cannon.

When World War II came and Lyle guns were added to the inventory of coastal beach patrol stations in isolated areas, the service ordered another 800 new guns first from the Sculler Safety Equipment Corp. of New York and then from the Hawley Smith Company of Crotan Falls while orders from the Navy were even higher. While they were generally to the standard design of Lt. Lyle from 1878, these wartime guns used a heavier carriage, slightly thicker barrel walls and added trunnion caps to produce a stronger and more durable gun.

In all, the Coast Guard kept the Lyle guns around until 1952-- a service span of more than seven decades.

The National Park Service maintains an extensive collection of these devices, often found in storage in old rescue stations, warehouses and lighthouses turned over from the Coast Guard to the agency. At least one (a 1905-made Richmond Iron Works USLSS gun) is in the collection of the Springfield Armory Museum and another is in the beautifully restored 1890 Life Saving Station that is now part of the Point Reyes National Seashore.

According to the National Park Service other guns are located at Cape Cod National Seashore, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Gateway National Recreation Area (Sandy Hook unit), and Cape Hatteras National Seashore and are often fired on special occasions for visitors.

The Chicamacomico Coast Guard Station conducts a Lyle gun drill on a regular basis for the public.

For more information on these guns, there seems to just be one book, The Lifesaving Guns of David Lyle by J. Paul Barnett, out there and it's out of print.

Overall, Lyle, who retired from the Army in the 1890s as a Major and died in 1934, must have been extremely proud of the invention that carried his name.

Not bad for a gun that was designed as an ancillary duty. 

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